Monday, December 16, 2013

Out of the Church Closet

With the Christmas season in full swing, I thought I’d turn to the delicate topic of religion. This post has been challenging to write; I get more personal as I share my journey of navigating my Christian evangelical faith. I may risk sounding irreverent to some and irrelevant to others, but please bear with me as we go…

The 20s is a time of negotiating and solidifying our identities; in many ways, it’s an extended, more serious adolescence. We all have closets we are stepping out of, be it sexual orientation, religious conviction, political persuasion, or personal values.  Undergoing this personal excavation, particularly in front of loved ones, can be taxing and confusing, yet also freeing.

For me, my “closet” is my Christian evangelical faith. For years it's been a comforting and orienting place that has enriched my life with meaning and purpose. But around high school I began to place my world under the microscope as I straddled worlds of liberals, conservatives, theists and atheists.

I come from an inspiring family tradition of Christianity. On one side, my grandparents and great-grandparents were missionaries to Argentina and to Costa Rica. While my great-grandfather traveled all over Latin America evangelizing, my great-grandmother founded a hospital, an orphanage, a radio station, a nursing school, a seminary, and jointly, with her husband, a missionary organization.  She was the paragon of a social entrepreneur, before the term existed. 

Susan Strachan: The tireless social entrepreneur
Harry Strachan: The quiet Scotsman who prayed to be more extroverted to evangelize Latin America

On the other side, my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, his wife an eccentric writer and piano player who made hymns sound like a bar room boogie.  During the summer months the family would vacation in Montreat, NC. Here my grandmother met Ruth Graham, and a constant string of friendly pranks ensued between them, while husband Billy toured the world preaching revival and counseling American presidents.  

From left to right: Betty Frist, Rev. Chet Frist, and Ruth Graham
Always with a sense of humor, Ruth brought them muumuus from her visit to Hawaii.

As a child, I dreamed of being a missionary in a poor country, imitating the life of my great-grandmother. In high school I became captain of my school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I prayed over the loud speaker at a football game (which is no longer allowed), I organized the 7am See You At the Pole prayer rally, and I went on mission trips to Mexico and remote Canada. College was similar, and I was deeply involved in my campus Christian fellowship.

Church youth group 1998. These were wonderfully fun and growing times.
I'm in the bottom right corner, leaning over.

Suffice it to say that my faith was everything important to me: my community, my heritage, my future career and ambitions, my beliefs and my values, my identity. 

But sometimes even what is most stable and certain in your life shakes loose. And when something has roots in you that deep, it hurts unbearably when they get pulled. You wonder if everything in you might just go with it. 

My faith began to gently wobble some time back in high school. When I tried to evangelize, I found I was more parroting other people than speaking from my own experience. In college I persevered, and my doubts were like a persistent cold that would come and go.  I couldn’t quite pin them down with words, but they remained a bone-chilling fog. Senior year I told my roommate that I preferred one tiny brick of truth to a giant house of faith cards that kept falling. I was getting exhausted picking them up and rebuilding again.

The advice Christians give when you’re going through “a spiritual wilderness” is to keep going to church, keep praying, and keep reading the Bible. Just as you can’t give up on your relationship with your husband, even if you are mad at him, you can’t stop spending time with God at church. 

This can be wise advice, but it got to the point where I couldn’t go to church or read the Bible without breaking down into tears of frustration, anger and sadness. The thought of putting myself through that emotional torment each week was too much.  I felt stifled and stagnant; hearing the same messages week after week wasn’t helping, and I had to try something new. It also didn’t help that my spiritual struggles coincided with clinical depression. At one point I confessed to my mom that I just wanted to die. Despite the outward amazingness of my life, inside I felt I was disintegrating.

And so four years after college, I stopped going to church and started staying home and attending the Church of The Holy Comforter with Reverend Sheets. At first it felt strange after 26 years of almost never missing church, and I felt rather guilty. But as with any new routine, after a while it started to feel normal and I looked forward to my Sunday mornings watching documentaries on string theory and reading Huston Smith’s World Religions.  

For the first time in my life, despite always excelling in school, I had a voracious appetite to learn. I no longer had all the answers; I just had questions, lots of questions. I was confused and tormented, but also a bit more free. And while many Christians may disagree, I felt God was far more pleased with a curious, courageous, real me than the fearful me who kept going to church out of duty and to maintain the respect of her friends. 

A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to admit this, especially so publicly. The fear of judgment from my Christian community was too much to face. Christians don’t let their flock do too much wandering. I’d heard how my friends talked about others who had taken an exploratory stroll away from Christianity  – I didn’t want to be talked about like that.

But growth and relationships begin with honesty and authenticity, whether you are talking addiction, politics, sexual orientation, or religion. And so while I’m generally hesitant to talk about my spiritual journey, I’ve decided that if I want to make any progress at all, I have to start with where I am and not with where I wish I were.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they have the tradition of introducing themselves by saying, “Hi, my name is X, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Christians have a similar tradition of first confessing to God that they are sinners. Both aim to overcome shame and promote honesty. Going through a period of self examination can often bring a feeling of shame; you are questioning the very things and the very people that gave you life and love. Some react differently and relish the rebellion, but many of us don't. For people like me, we need courage to confess, “Hi, my name is Lisa, and I’m an agnostic.”

I'm only part way through my journey, so my goal is not to offer a triumphal ending, but to be open about my messy process.  My advice is be where you are, even if that place is “I don’t know.” It doesn’t mean we stay there forever, but it’s only in acknowledging our starting point that we can have hope of finding our ending point. If we aren’t honest and authentic with ourselves and others, one day we’ll wake up realizing we’ve just stuffed all our questions under the rug and that none of our friends really know who we are.

But to foster authenticity we need welcoming communities. I’d like to offer three suggestions, particularly to the evangelical church.

1. Be a safe friend
When I stopped going to church and wasn’t sure what I believed anymore I was nervous to tell one of my best friends because I wasn’t sure how she’d react. I’d already risked telling another friend who told me I should "just try harder.” But this friend LISTENED, she really LISTENED. And at the end she told me what she had LEARNED from me and how helpful it was to hear my perspective. She ASKED me how she could best help, and she DID NOT PANIC.  

We all need safe friends, whether we are debating our political views, trying to figure out whether or not to have an abortion, or figuring out our faith. We need people who we can go to who will not freak out and will keep loving us and being our friend. My advice is to be honest, but speak gently, realizing that you may be poking a hornets' nest. Most importantly be a learner first, then a teacher, even if you think you’re right.

2. Create bridging spaces
Part of the reason I stopped going to church was because there seemed to be no place for me. The evangelical church is like an organized army when it comes to evangelizing nonbelievers and mentoring strong believers. But it doesn’t know what to do with people like me who have doubts and want to explore. At worst, the church sees us as a threat; our thoughts are like an illness that might infect other people. At best, the church is open and understanding, but simply doesn’t have programs or rituals for us and doesn’t see us as an asset to learn from. In church services that are centered on the confession of belief, those who are uncertain are left not participating or feeling inauthentic. 

The reality is that almost everyone goes through a period of questioning and uncertainty, whether it’s related to religion, politics, or other values. These are gems of times; they are the pauses in the music that allow for creativity and new direction; a chance for worldviews to collide and learn from each other; a chance for physics to meet meditation; and an opportunity for truths and values to be refined. Yet despite the inevitability and tremendous value of these spaces, we often fear them, rush through them, and hide them from one another. What if instead we welcomed them and helped each other through them?

3. Develop what talking-head Sally Kohn from Fox News calls “emotional correctness”

Talking about things like faith and politics inevitably gets our blood boiling and our emotions firing. Something about our brain wiring and our social group mentality makes us react this way. Get to know your trigger buttons; monitor and reflect on your emotions. Aim to speak with kindness or “emotional correctness.”
Within the Christian community we need to stop fearing that other denominations are wolves in sheep’s clothing and start realizing that we are all just plain old dumb sheep. A Mighty Fortress is our God, not our church – stop building walls and launching missiles (or missals, if you will). Live out of love, not fear, focus more on learning and being a pilgrim than on defending and being right.
The good news is that I’ve been surprised to realize that I have far more safe friends than unsafe friends.  I now connect more authentically with those who aren't Christians, though I wish we shared a richer faith vocabulary. The process has also humbled me; I used to take a lot of pride in being a strong Christian and now I'm back to preschool. While in some ways my journey has taken me away from faith, in other ways it's brought me deeper into it; I’ve found inspiration in the medieval Christian mystics and through practices like centering prayer and in hearing other spiritual journeys. The more I explore the mystery of quantum physics and consciousness, the more I see religion and science meeting on the other side of the circle.

For now, I’m treating my spiritual journey more as a marathon with a lot of twists and turns rather than a sprint. I’m learning to live more settled in my unsettledness and to focus on finding and being with God rather than defending and defining him.

I’d like to leave you with a prayer that I particularly love and find encouraging, written by St. Ambrose, a 4th century Christian saint.
Lord, teach me to seek Thee and reveal Thyself to me when I seek Thee,
For I cannot seek Thee unless Thou dost teach me,
Nor find Thee unless Thou dost reveal Thyself to me.
Let me seek Thee in longing.
And long for Thee in seeking.
Let me find Thee in love,
And love Thee in finding.
May you find courage and hope in your own search!